New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Open Door" and Elizabeth Swados
La MaMa, Manhattan

Composer/lyricist Elizabeth Swados does not confine her work to Jewish themes alone, though she has won the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Anne Frank Award. And her work often does focus on Jewish themes—as with “The Haggadah” and “Jerusalem.”

But her work reaches out beyond one culture, as indicated by her many New York awards (five Tonys, as well as Drama Desk, Ace, Emmy, Obie, and Outer Critics Circle awards). Her Broadway and off-Broadway work has included “Doonesbury,” “Rap Music Ronnie,” “Medea,” and “Fragments of a Greek Trilogy”—which are indeed eclectic subjects.

In fact, Swados has a global vision, as well indicated by her current show—“Open Door.” This time, Swados, in collaboration with director/choreographer/puppeteer Federico Restrepo (a Colombian-born artist), focuses attention on the very controversial issue of immigration. This piece offers a series of scenes depicting the plight of the immigrant, spelled out by an ensemble of dancers, giant puppets, and Swados’ haunting music.

The show can be seen off-Broadway at La MaMa, playing through several weeks this month.

Not that immigration has not been a Jewish issue over the centuries, as Jews have wandered the globe. And it has always concerned other peoples and many countries as well. But currently the issue is of particular import, and is in fact a global issue. In this country (as elsewhere) it has become a hot topic, with the dialogue that surrounds it ranging from open door (free immigration) to closed door (zero immigration) and all shadings of gray in between. Impassioned advocates hold forth on both sides, as we wait to see what immigration laws our new Congress will enact.

There is no doubt that “Open Door” comes down on the side of the immigrant, with its fifteen scenes covering “Recorded interviews at JFK airport,” “An immigrant arrives to New York City,” “Migrating Birds,” and “Illegal Memories” (to name a few of the titles). While some of the images are powerful (as with the puppet birds flying south) or the young immigrant caught up in New York traffic and din, other moments drag. And often the messages do not communicate via the particular dance number. A twirling plastic globe is meant to convey “….spinning in a world of fear,” but it is merely a large wobbly plastic globe. And Swados’ lyrics, unfortunately, are often mumbled unintelligibly.

“Open Door” is a worthy effort, given its statement, but perhaps needs to return to the drawing board. And, at best, it offers one more opportunity to hear the unique Swados sounds.

-- Irene Backalenick
Dec. 5, 2006

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